Good morning! We are nearly at the end of our read through Isaiah, and today we enter what’s called “Third Isaiah”. Some biblical scholars think that Third Isaiah starts with our first chapter today (55), while others say it begins with 56 (and still others deny the division altogether). This third part is supposed to date from the time after the Jews returned from Babylon and were rebuilding Jerusalem. Though I can’t find many details here to support that hypothesis (maybe more tomorrow), the key feature I note today is a back and forth between the people’s sins and God’s righteous benevolence.
Isaiah 55 could start out with an all-caps sign: “FREE FOOD!” I love the expression of divine grace here in terms of food without money or price, which runs so counter to the mercenary capitalism of our own time, where everything is available but only for those with money to pay for it. Here though, rich food and overflowing drink are available for no other reason than that God is generous and desires to bless. This is a perspective on divine abundance that leave me breathless, and nearly in tears at the grace on display. This largess is not wasted either—God’s word accomplishes just the things that God intends, namely joy, peace, celebration, and everlasting remembrance.
In this part of Isaiah, God is no longer strictly interested in the Jewish people alone (perhaps because there were many non-Jews among the returning refugees). This Isaiah declares God’s covenant reformatted—no longer just for those who are born into Hebrew heritage, but now open to all who obey God’s righteousness. This is classic (and welcome, in my opinion) prophetic adaptation. This is not a total break with the past, since we see such renewed emphasis on traditions like Sabbath-keeping. Nevertheless, now God’s favor is extended more universally, to everyone who acts in righteousness. One wonders how the rebuilders Ezra and Nehemiah would have responded to this prophetic leadership, given their penchant for establishing bloodlines and excluding foreigners.
Isaiah 56 concludes with a critique of corrupt, out-of-touch rulers of Israel, and chapter 57 continues in that vein. Here the focus turns toward the idolatrous practices of some Hebrews, specifically the nature worship and fertility rites of other ancient near-Eastern spiritualities. God says that these idols will not save in times of trial, but righteousness will lead to life.
The core tenant of Isaiah 58 is that worship entails more than words and rituals—it must lead to meaningful change for those who are oppressed. This might make those of us cringe whose daily work includes a great deal of focus on words and rituals! But I find this an essential prioritizing of the means and the goal—faith exists for the sake of praising God through righteousness and mercy. There are clear justice connections here between how the hungry, naked or homeless poor are treated, and the society-wide experience of God’s blessings.
The final two chapters of today’s passage again highlight human failings and divine promises. Isaiah details the sins of Israel’s people in chapter 59. Can you imagine the courage required to proclaim in front of leaders and/or the public: “Your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness”? These are impressive rebukes, made possible because of “my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth”. Such a spirit also gives hope beyond the troubles of the past, when God will make Israel triumph head and shoulders around every competitor in the region. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Isaiah 61-66. Thanks for reading!